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Father of the Kamikaze

Father of the Kamikaze
1974 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 191 min. / Aa Kessen Koukuutai / Street Date January 13, 2009 / 29.98
Starring Koji Tsuruta, Akira Kobayashi, Kiny Kitaoji, Tsunehiko Tatase, Bunta Sugawara.
Cinematography Kenji Tsukakoshi
Original Music Chuji Kinoshita
Written by Taizo Kusayanagi
Produced by Shigeru Okada Kouji Shundoh
Directed by Kousaku Yamashita

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Father of the Kamikaze (Aa Kessen Koukuutai) is a 1974 docudrama about one of the most controversial subjects of World War II, the Japanese suicide squadrons that crashed their warplanes into Allied ships in a desperate attempt to reverse the losing tide of battle. American fleets were attacked by waves of pilots sent on their way with formal funerals and joyous farewells. Although Western sources seized on the word "kamikaze", the Japanese Navy referred to the force as "special attack units".

The movie is a dramatized history lesson covering the last three years of the war, when Japan was overwhelmed by America's better-equipped navy and air force. Brief aerial combat scenes are interspersed between meetings and debates between Japanese officers charged to win the war by any means necessary. The officers are introduced by their real names, and dates and quotes appear on screen as text. Voiceover narration explains contextual issues, such as why Japan couldn't keep Allied planes from bombing the Japanese mainland. The movie is over three hours long, much of it spent in conferences and formal gatherings. At the end, the Emperor's decision to surrender to the Allies precipitates an attempted mutiny, an episode covered more thoroughly in an earlier and better known film, Kihachi Okamoto's Japan's Longest Day.

The main character is real-life Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi (Koji Tsuruta). Onishi didn't invent the idea of suicide planes but he presented it to his superiors as a strategy option and was made responsible for its implementation. After their conquest of the Philippines, Japanese forces liberate a handful of pilots who were captured during the campaign. Because Japanese military regulations forbid surrender, the men expect to be executed as traitors! Although the war effort is desperately in need of experienced fliers, the pilots are allowed to atone by volunteering to fly suicide missions.

Onishi is soon commanding squadrons of pilots eager to sacrifice themselves as "special attack units", which are seen as the only hope for victory. Although the kamikazes do sink ships, the American armada is not repelled. The grotesque policy is also grotesquely wasteful -- Onishi eventually sacrifices thousands of young men this way.

Does Father of the Kamikaze glorify its disturbing subject? An officer states that one of his problems is "finding a beautiful death" for his men. In a military party scene that could have been directed by John Ford, a group of fliers induce one of their own to marry his sweetheart. But the pilot is so committed to his "duty" that he eventually leaves on a one-way mission, of his own accord. The Japanese military carry this morbidity to barbaric extremes. At one point an officer mentions that some pilots were allowed to execute captured Allied P.O.W.'s with samurai swords, "to keep up morale".

Admiral Onishi suffers doubts about the wisdom of the attacks. On a visit to Tokyo he finds his uncomplaining wife dutifully picking through their bomb-burned house for keepsakes. She greets him with formal smiles. She can't accompany him to his new post, because the men he's sending to die will not have similar domestic comforts. When the suicide attacks fail, the Admiral assumes personal responsibility by committing a particularly agonizing form of seppuku suicide. The movie restages the event for a gory finale. Again, accepting all of this requires respect for an archaeic code with unyielding definitions of honor, victory, and sacrifice.

Director Kousaku Yamashita stages much of the film in tight shots and formal views of meeting rooms. Although an airfield or two are pictured along with some functioning airplanes, the action is limited to re-purposed combat footage and ambitious, obvious miniature work. Thankfully, the aerial dogfights aren't portrayed as battles between Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, as is typical of older war films.

Since this is a 70s picture, the gore quotient is off the scale. One shipboard scene shows Japanese naval gunners cut to pieces by strafing aircraft, with the deck awash in blood. A popular pilot's body is recovered after a crash, with more emphasis on mutilation and gore. The cinematography is often fairly attractive but the director avoids "pretty" shots of sunsets and other ennobling visuals.

In one of the film's few casual moments, Admiral Onishi sits with his suicide flyers on the grass, shaking their hands and getting to know them better. The notion of the kamikaze forces us to confront the logic in the concept of sacrifice for one's country. Is the ultimate sacrifice an "easy out" for these pilots, a way of discharging their (impossible) duty to the Emperor while evading the burden of defeat?

AnimEigo's Father of the Kamikaze is a quality presentation of the lengthy Toei feature, with good color and a clear soundtrack that favors Chuji Kinoshita's emphatic music score. Once again, AnimEigo's commitment to informative extras is in evidence. The subtitles offer definitions of unfamiliar phrases, and lengthy program notes present explanations for many more idiomatic expressions and cultural points. Twenty or so Japanese naval officers depicted in the film are given brief biographies, as is the film's star Koji Tsuruta, an actor and popular singer with a standing equal to that of Toshiro Mifune. An interactive set of maps shows the locations of the Philippines, Taiwan and Okinawa and offers capsule coverage of the famous battles.

The text notes also discuss the history of suicide bombings, with an annotated essay examining the practice as we know it today. Typical of AnimEigo's thoughtfulness, a text card acknowledges the controversial nature of the subject and states that the research presented is not meant to be conclusive. Trailers, stills and an advertising poster gallery round out the package.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Father of the Kamikaze rates:
Movie: Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Image gallery, program notes, trailer, interactive map.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 4, 2009

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies .

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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